Thursday, October 10, 2013

Monster Serial: PSYCHO, 1960

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


To have a relationship with horror movies means having a relationship with PSYCHO.  When I was a kid, my father enthusiastically supported my exploration of horror movies, and PSYCHO always held a special place in his road-trip seminars.  I was told little about the particulars, as Hitchcock would have wanted, but I knew of the legendary shower scene.  Having eluded me for years, the film arrived on cable and, at age twelve, I was ready to embrace the ultimate terror.

Turns out, the terror included a lot of yack, yack, yack, and by the time that Norman went to  "paint the grout" in the bathroom, I was fast asleep. Bernard Hermann's legendary strings were more of a lullaby than a cue for terror.

PSYCHO and I stayed separated.

At least until the next opportunity.  I finally caught it in full when PSYCHO II came out, and I wished I'd stayed asleep.  This is the curse of living in a post-slasher world and having a post-slasher attention-span.  The film felt long, boring, and stilted; Martin Balsam looked ludicrous as he fell down the stairs; and when it came to drag, Tony Perkins was no Jack Lemmon.

I was, of course, wrong on everything.

PSYCHO was the thinking man's b-movie, and I won't say that it was wasted on a kid, but... well, it was wasted on a kid.

Years later, at Louisville's beloved Vogue Theater, the demented manager scheduled the film for Mother's Day, and it was a completely different movie for me.  Given the many screen screamers I'd seen in the interim, I still couldn't call it a scary movie, but I love it anyway -- probably for the wrong reasons. I am a proudly neurotic man, collecting fears like baseball cards, but being stabbed in the shower by an Oedipally-obsessed transvestite is not one of my concerns.  Beyond allowing me to bathe in peace, this also lets me look at PSYCHO from a unique perspective -- one in which Norman Bates is the tragic hero.  Once the surprises are gone, what remains?In the film, seeming protagonist Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) pulls off a casual and stealthy heist from her job and then goes on a road trip to dodge the law.  In search of a place to sleep, she stumbles across the Bates Motel, now fallen on hard times due to the rerouting of the highway.

The motel is run by a kind-but-nervous young man named Norman Bates, an amateur taxidermist and hectored son of the a puritanical mother.  We are led to believe that the mother is killing women over and over (ala Ed Gein), and Marion is dispatched in the most famous shower scene in cinema prior to PORKY'S.  This disappearance is investigated by Marion's sister (Vera Miles) and a detective (Martin Balsam, coincidentally the original voice of HAL in 2001).  They discover, in delightfully gruesome ways, that Norman murdered (and stuffed) Mrs. Bates and now dresses as The Mom when her personality becomes lethally dominant.  Norman is eventually apprehended, and a psychiatrist, played by Simon Oakland (Kolchak's boss, Tony Vincenzo, from THE NIGHT STALKER), explains Norman's condition... at length.  Norman gets the last shot, but a narration makes it clear that Mrs. Bates' personality is now in control.

Today, I endure Janet Leigh's presence rather than follow her journey (despite the stunning and groundbreaking bra baring and commode command). It's such a relief when Norman makes his appearance.  God bless Tony Perkins' controlled, pained, and often hilarious performance.  Poor Norman... he's the classic adult child stuck at home, shrewish mother and all.  This hapless guy's living in Hell.  At the end, when Mrs. Bates finally takes over, I feel relieved for Norman.  I hope his consciousness doesn't have to come back.  As Tony Vincenzo drones on, Norman has seemingly evaporated, and wherever he is, or isn't, it's got to be a happier situation than sharing a skull with his mom.

I even like the sequels. They crafted a legitimate mythology, and allowed me appreciate the original even more.  They're inferior pieces of filmmaking, yes, but they have a goofy integrity that fleshes out Norman as a conflicted and sympathetic figure.  My feelings on the original are probably colored by their context, especially in the case of the made-for-cable PSYCHO IV, a wonky-but-underrated glimpse into Norman's background.  I wonder what the first film would be like if you watched the fourth one, first.

As a side-note, no discussion of PSYCHO is complete without a mention of the baffling remake.  The oddest moment is when Norman spies on Marion in her room and masturbates with abandon to the sight.  What?  Really? He's Norman Bates, not Arno Strine.  Norman is the picture of sexual denial.  I think that if he'd been able to have a (yes, sleazy) release like that, Norman never would have killed anyone.

This was one of the most arresting deviations in the remake, and I bought the DVD (no, not proudly) for a commentary that I'd hoped would explain it. What the hell was director Gus Van Sant thinking?  Don't wait for the translation, answer me now!  As The Moment came and went, Anne Heche prattled on about something of zero import, and the director -- a pretty smart guy -- never got to explain his handiwork.

Fortunately, Hitchcock knew what he was doing in his depiction of a supremely repressed Norman.  Norman's a good boy, really.  He'd never do something like that.

It's just his mom who's the problem.

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

1 comment:

Sandi Mcbride said...

Like Jaws, the music piece was the star of the show...I saw the movie when I was 14 a couple of years after it came out and the music set your nerve ends on fire....but this is the first time that I have found myself agreeing with anyone that perhaps the movie could have been better...great read

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